Tuesday, 7 June 2011

An Englishman, An Irishman and A Gay Walk Into A Bar...

Someone told me a joke today, which I'm not going to repeat it.  It didn't make me laugh.  It shouldn't make you laugh, either, but I'm not going to test it.  It was an offensive joke.  It was a joke about AIDS.  It perpetuated the old bullshit that AIDS is a gay disease. Anyway, as I said, it's not something I am going to repeat here and it was actually pretty sickening, both in and of itself and because the person who told it to me knows that I am openly, proudly gay and still thought I might find it funny.

We've come a long way, haven't we?  I never could have dreamed, 20 years ago, that there would be laws in place that would make homophobia a crime.  The idea of that was unthinkable when I was 20 years old.  And sometimes I secretly miss those days - I miss having something to rail against and I miss being an outsider in some ways.  Then I pull myself together and remember that the benefits by far outweigh the disadvantages.  In reality, it fills me with joy that my younger friends don't have the same kind of challenges that I had.  That they are free to be themselves and that the law protects their right to do that.  For the most part we have it good.  I would be pretty comfortable walking down the street hand in hand with a boyfriend, for example (except in Chorley - I probably wouldn't want to do that in Chorley).

But that joke today reminded me that homophobia really hasn't gone away.  Not by a long chalk.  In the same way that I still hear racist and sexist jokes, I still hear homophobic ones.  And people shrug it off (even other gay people) by using the line that it's only a bit of fun.  What harm can it do?  Well, quite a lot, actually.  Because it means that those attitudes are still out there and they're still being aired in a way that is lighthearted and in some way acceptable.  So we've come a long way - but we still have a way to go.

There are many things that give me hope - but two have stood out for me this year.  And, unbelievably, they're both American and they're both profoundly mainstream.  Glee.  And Gaga.

Glee absolutely astounds me.  The issues that it tackles would never have been tackled by a US show aimed at teenagers even five years ago.  Glee's message is clear - no matter what your race, your sexuality, your disability, you have the absolute right to live your life free of persecution or prejudice.  It's not subtle about that.  It can't afford to be.

Gaga is blatantly the same.  The lyrics to Born This Way are practically the Glee manifesto.  And, for reasons to do with the times we live in, it's probably the most profoundly and effectively political piece of music since Bob Dylan wrote Blowin' In The Wind, a song which had a real and concrete impact on the civil rights movement in America.

True - a lot of late 70s punk music was exhilaratingly political.  But Thatcher and Reagan still got in.   There was some great left wing music in the 80s, too - but it didn't stop the coalmines here and the shipyards here and in the US from closing down one by one.  It was rage music - some of it was very, very good rage music - but it achieved very little.

Love them or hate them, Glee and Gaga have come along just at the right time.  Obama is up for re-election in 2 years or so time.  If he wins that second term, that's when he'll start to do all the things he couldn't do when he had getting re-elected to worry about.  Not only that, but I believe the main senate elections will be happening then too.  Gaga won't be like Madonna - draping herself in the American flag for Rock The Vote, urging the kids to get out there and have their voices heard, whatever that voice is.  No - Gaga will be telling them that they should be voting for the politicians that support gay marriage, healthcare reforms, equality laws.

And those 14 or 15 year olds who, 2 years ago, fell in love with Gaga and Glee are 16 now.  Which means that they will be voting for the first time in 2 years.  The prospect of that terrifies politicians an awful lot.  You won't be seeing quite so many GOD HATES FAGS types winning quite so much support.  And surely that's a good thing!

It remains to be seen if I'm right, of course.  I hope I am.  But in the meantime - no gay jokes, please.  Except the one about 9 out of 10 gays.  I like that one.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Sunken Cathedral

The man in the picture above is not the man who made me want to play the piano when I was six.  The man who made me want to play the piano when I was six was Benny from ABBA because I thought the piano introduction to Mamma Mia was the raddest thing I'd ever heard.  The man in the picture above is Claude Achille Debussy - he's the man who makes me want to play the piano again, now that I'm 40!

My Auntie Rhona lived in a big house called The Grove.  It had loads of funny rooms and strange extensions and giant spiders and a summer house and a wood and a heron and an owl.  It was just the kind of place that would enchant any six year old.  And it had two pianos.  I used to go round there and pretend I could play them.  Eventually, I worked out what the order of the piano keyboard was and I was able to pick out a tune by ear.  By the time I was eight I had got that Mamma Mia intro down to a tee.

One of the pianos belonged to Rhona's Mother-in-Law, Mrs Airey.  I liked her a lot - she was the poshest person I knew and she was also the only person I knew who would tolerate sitting with the eight year old me and being asked proper questions about music.  I could sit with my Grandmother and listen to Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, but when I asked Mrs Airey things like "Why are they all singing at the same time but you can understand what they're saying?" she would have an answer for me.  Her answer to that question, incidentally, is why I love The Marriage of Figaro.

One day she played me an old crackly recording of someone playing Debussy's Clair De Lune.  I couldn't speak - it moved me so much that the words literally stuck in my throat.  Breathing properly was kind of hard too.  This was a completely new musical adventure for me.  The way the notes piled upon notes upon notes upon notes and STILL managed to sound utterly delicate and beautiful.  And so I made her play me everything she had by Debussy.  None of it had any less of an effect on me.  And it was that day that she said to me "You can have my piano if you like - I'm too old.  I won't be playing it again!"

And so, 2 weeks later, I remember hiding behind the door while my Uncle John (Mrs Airey's son) and my Dad lifted that old piano off the back of a pick up truck and into our living room.  It was about an hour before I could work up the nerve to open the lid and see how out of tune it was.  But, as soon as I did, I didn't care. There was no stopping me then.  I wanted to play everything.  I would spend all my pocket money on sheet music (the first was Debussy's Suite Bergamesque, though it would be a long time before I could play anything from it), I would teach myself to play Joni Mitchell songs, Clementi Sonatinas, basically anything that could conceivably be played on the piano.  I started writing music.  I started loving the act of being a solitary man at a big wooden instrument, creating something that make the neighbours stop what they were doing and just listen.

I left home eventually and the old piano didn't come with me.  I stopped playing completely.  But when I heard old Mrs Airey had died, I put some Debussy on and had a little cry and every bit of me cried out for a piano to take my grief out on.

When I moved to Jersey I bought another piano.  I could sit at my window, looking at the sea and play Debussy to my heart's content.  And sometimes I would go deliberately on my own to the bar of the hotel where the man himself composed La Mer.   They were my secret little pilgrimages to the man whose music made me love the piano.  Eventually I sold the piano to a beautiful Swedish girl who would love it as much as I did.  And then I moved to Manchester and was pianoless again.

If I had one now - right now - I'd be teaching myself some Joanna Newsom songs.  Maybe some Gaga ones for a laugh.  But I haven't got one.  And, along with a few select things, I miss it.  So I had to write about how having a piano felt to me.  And now that I've done that I kind of wonder why.

Time to save up for some keys...